Andrea Lochen’s second novel, Imaginary Things, is just out from Astor + Blue. Life List author Lori Nelson Spielman calls it, “a beautiful book, filled with vivid scenes, unforgettable characters, and oodles of heart.” Andrea earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!), where she was a Colby Fellow. She now teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, where she won Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. And her story of how she started writing is … well, first rate! – Meg
A First Rate Version of Myself
Deciding I wanted to become a published author wasn’t the difficult part of my journey; that aspiration had been my heart’s not-so-secret desire since I was eight years old. The difficult part was developing my own unique voice and style, and even more challenging—finding the confidence to embrace and be proud of that voice and style. The lesson Judy Garland once encouraged—“Always be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of someone else” is one that took me several years to learn.
As a child, I was drawn to imaginative books. The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks, where a boy’s plastic cowboy and Indian figurines come to life, was one of my favorites. I wrote stories that reflected my preoccupation with these kinds of magical transformations and carefully illustrated them as well. As a young adolescent, I fell hard for Stephen King and devoured several of his horror novels. Predictably, my writing took a dark turn: murder became a central part of my stories. Thankfully, my parents and teachers weren’t too concerned.
When I arrived at the University of Wisconsin as an undergraduate, I was delighted to discover creative writing “workshop” classes. There I was first introduced to the literary canon of short stories: Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Lorrie Moore, Tim O’Brien. There I was also introduced to the idea that there were two different kinds of fiction—literary fiction and “genre” fiction, and genre was generally discouraged and seen as the lesser of the two. I started to write more realistic stories about relationships. My writing improved significantly, but there was no more magic and certainly no more murders.
By the time I pursued my Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Michigan, I was bored with realistic fiction and ready to dive back into the world of magical realism. I started writing a draft of my first novel, The Repeat Year, and while the majority of my professors and classmates were very supportive, there were a few who commented that my novel seemed to have “commercial potential,” which didn’t sound like a compliment the way they said it. It felt like that old dichotomy rearing its ugly head again. My book wasn’t literary enough. It was too commercial; it was genre fiction.
When The Repeat Year sold to Penguin, I was elated. My goal to become a published author was going to be fully realized! But I felt slightly disheartened when I learned from my agent and editor that the book was going to be marketed as commercial fiction. This classification seemed to confirm what my former professors had suspected; I hadn’t been writing literary fiction. At that moment, it seemed to me that I had somehow written something lesser.
Looking back, it’s clear to me that in my early years, I read feverishly and widely and imitated my favorite authors with reckless abandon. In my teens and twenties, I became indoctrinated into academia and read only what was recommended, the classics, but still imitated other authors, although perhaps a little more self-consciously. (I remember glowing with pride when one of my professors compared my style to Alice Munro’s.) But it took me quite a while to return to my childhood loves and roots, and take the knowledge I had gained and apply it to the kind of writing that I wanted to do. Not the kind of writing others told me was worthwhile—the stories that were in my heart and I only I could tell.
It’s a relief to finally be that square peg who’s popped out of the round hole! It’s much more comfortable out here forging my own unique genre of what I like to call commercial fiction with a twist of magical realism. Though it’s incredibly important to read a wide variety of authors and allow them to influence you, it’s also incredibly important to let your own voice emerge. I tried to be a more Literary Writer who writes only about Serious Topics, and it didn’t work for me. I was a pale imitation. But when I finally let loose and stopped worrying about categories, I became a happier person and, in my own humble opinion, a stronger writer. – Andrea